THE GREENS MANIFESTO, released on Sunday (9/7/23) contains an extraordinary promise. If it finds itself in a position to do so, the Green Party will “explore” the return of land “wrongfully alienated from the tangata whenua”. To be clear, the Greens are not referring to Crown land. The process envisaged involves giving Māori “a right of first refusal”, enabling “the return of private land to iwi, hapū and whānau at point of sale”.
To describe this policy as “challenging” does it a disservice. On its face, the Greens’ policy is nothing short of revolutionary. Slowly, but surely, Māori could reclaim the lands that were, by war or legal chicanery, taken from them. The processes of colonisation, to which the extinguishing of native title has always been fundamental, would be thrown into reverse.
“But, they can’t do that! All Hell would break loose!” Certainly, that would be the cry. But how loud would it be, really?
After all, the process described has for many years constituted an important aspect of the Treaty Settlement Process. The right of first refusal to land which the Crown no longer wished to own was granted to Ngai Tahu in 1998.
“But, granting first refusal to iwi, hapū and whānau in relation to Crown land is quite different from encouraging them to exercise the same right in relation to private land”, the critics would object. “To give Māori such a right would fundamentally derange our entire system. Individuals and companies must be free to sell their property to whomsoever they please – otherwise the free market economy falls apart.”
Putting to one side the legal nicety that the Crown is deemed to own every hectare of New Zealand already, and that those who purchase real estate generally hold it “in fee simple” from the King. (And you thought feudalism was dead!) What the Greens are proposing is simply that Māori be given the first opportunity to meet the vendor’s price – not that they be given the power to set it! The market will continue to work – at least in the short term. Over time, however, more and more land would, indeed, revert to Māori ownership.
Apart from it being an affront to their colonial amor propre, what respectable reason could Pakeha have for caring who ends up buying what they have chosen to sell? When Kiwis flick on their homes, the identity of the purchaser doesn’t usually signify. What matters is that the transaction goes smoothly, and that the agreed purchase-price ends up in the vendor’s bank account. If iwi corporations were to become major players in the buying and selling of New Zealand real estate who, apart from inveterate racists, would really care?
Certainly not the generations of New Zealanders born after 1965. For more and more of the generations at the end of the alphabet, buying and selling property has become a pipe dream. Some of them might even welcome the steady transfer of real estate from Pakeha to Māori: arguing (with some justification) that large iwi corporations could hardly be worse landlords than the grasping rack-renters who lord it over them now.
No, if the Green’s policy is going to cause trouble, then it will be in the long, not the short, term. Think about it. Once iwi, hapū and whānau have finally reclaimed their lost whenua, how likely is it that they will allow it slip through their fingers a second time? Which can only mean that a time will come when most of New Zealand is in the hands of iwi, hapū and whānau ill-disposed to selling their whenua, their taonga, to any but their own.
Which is why this Green policy comes under the rubric of “Te Tiriti”. It is hard to imagine a better way of demonstrating the injustice that lies at the heart of our nation’s story. The first time the Māori refused to sell their land to the Pakeha, the Pakeha imported 12,000 imperial troops from Great Britain and confiscated vast tracts of it. Then, having overcome all serious indigenous opposition, successive settler governments passed laws encouraging the Pakeha to take what little productive Māori land was left.
By re-creating the disposition of New Zealand real estate at the time of the Treaty’s signing, the Greens’ policy would right these wrongs.
Aotearoa was Māori land – it could be again.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 July 2023.